Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2017: The Boss Baby (dir by Tim McGrath)


I have to admit that The Boss Baby is an animated film that I have mixed feelings about.

Actually, that shouldn’t be surprising.  The Boss Baby is the epitome of the type of film that is disliked by critics but loved by audiences.  It got fairly dismissive reviews but it also made a ton of money and apparently, there’s a sequel in the works.

It’s a product of Dreamworks Animation, which has always basically been Pixar without the edge.  If Pixar films often seem to be about the animators working out their own personal issues through their work, the films from Dreamworks are often distinguished by just how little is actually going on beneath the surface.  If Pixar specializes in crowd pleasers that challenge you to think, Dreamworks specializes in crowd pleasers that invite you to sit back and relax.

(Of course, that’s a generalization.  Dreamworks is responsible for the Shrek films, the majority of which I absolutely love.  At the same time, as much as I love Pixar, I would warn against giving too much thought to anything in the first two Cars films.)

Anyway, The Boss Baby is the story of Ted, a little baby who wears a suit and tie and who sounds just like Alec Baldwin.  Strangely, only his older brother , Tim (Max Bakshi), appears to see anything strange about any of this.  Everyone just dismisses Tim’s concern as a product of Tim being jealous of his baby brother and, to a certain extent, they have a point.  The older children are always jealous of their younger siblings.  (Fortunately, I was the youngest of four so I never had to be jealous of anyone.)  Still, it turns out that Tim is correct about something being strange about Ted, who has actually been sent into the world on a secret mission.  Francis E. Francis (Steve Buscemi) is the CEO of Puppy Corp. and he’s conspiring to make puppies cuter than babies.  The Boss Baby has to stop him and he only has a few days to do so before he forgets how to speak and turns into an ordinary baby.

It’s a surprisingly busy plot and a lot of it feels as if it was ripped off from the Toy Story films.  Instead of talking toys, we’ve got a talking baby.  Just as Toy Story 3 featured a lengthy chase scene and a bitter villain, The Boss Baby features a lengthy chase scene and a bitter villain.  Much as how every Toy Story movie ended with a rumination on what it means to get older and grow up, The Boss Baby ends with a rumination on what it means to get older and grow up.  Many times, The Boss Baby feels like a compilation of scenes and characters lifted from other animated films.

At the same time, the idea of a baby wearing a suit and talking like a New York tough guy is undeniably cute.  I’m not the world’s biggest Alec Baldwin fan but, in this case, it’s perfect casting.  As the film itself makes clear, babies are cute.  This is especially true when they’re animated and you’re not the one who has to change their diapers or clean up after them.

There’s a thin line between keeping an audience happy and pandering and, often, The Boss Baby steps over that line.  It’s a very derivative film, one that never reaches either the comedic or the emotional highs of a good Pixar film.  However, the baby is cute and sometimes, that’s enough.

 

Playing Catch-Up: Sausage Party (dir by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan)


Sausage Party opens with a scene that could have come straight for a heart-warming Pixar film.  It’s morning and, in a gigantic grocery store called Shopwell’s, all of the grocery items are excited about the start of a new day.  The hot dogs are singing.  The buns are harmonizing.  The produce is bragging about how fresh they are.  Everyone is hoping that this will be the day that they are selected to leave the aisles of Shopwell’s and that they’ll be taken to the Great Beyond.  At Shopwell’s, shoppers are viewed as being Gods and being selected by a God means…

…well, no one is quite sure what it means but everyone’s sure that it has to be something good.  Surely, the Great Beyond couldn’t be something terrible, right?  At least, that’s what everyone assumes until a previously purchased jar of Honey Mustard returns to the store and tells a hot dog named Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen, who also co-wrote the film) that the Great Beyond is a lie.  The Great Beyond is not a paradise.  Instead, it’s something terrible.  Before Honey Mustard can be persuaded to give more details, it leaps off the shelf, choosing suicide over being restocked.

What could it all mean?  Well, there’s not too much time to worry about that because, even as Honey Mustard is committing suicide, a customer is selecting both Frank and Frank’s girlfriend, a bun named Brenda (Kristin Wiig).  They’re going to the Great Beyond together!  Yay!  Except…

…calamity!  A shopping cart collision leads to both Frank and Brenda being thrown to the floor.  While their friends are taken to the Great Beyond, Frank and Brenda are left to wander the store.  It turns out that Shopwell’s really comes alive after the lights go down and the doors are locked.  All of the grocery items leave their shelves and have one big party.  Frank seeks answers about the Great Beyond from a bottle of liquor named Firewater (Bill Hader).  Firewater has all the answers but you need to be stoned to truly understand.  This is a Seth Rogen movie, after all.  Meanwhile…

…Frank’s friends, the ones who survived the earlier cart collision, are discovering that the Great Beyond is not what they thought it was…

I apologize for all the ellipses but Sausage Party is the kind of movie that warrants them.  This is a rambling, occasionally uneven, and often hilariously funny little movie.  (I know that there were allegations that the film’s animators were treated horribly.  That’s sad to hear, not least because they did a truly wonderful job.)  Sausage Party was perhaps the ultimate stoner film of 2016, a comedy with a deeply philosophical bent that plays out with a logic that feels both random and calculated at the same time.

(If you’ve ever had the three-in-the-morning conversation about “What if our entire universe is just a speck of dust in a bigger universe?”, you’ll immediately understand what Sausage Party is trying to say.)

It’s also an amazingly profane little movie but again, that’s a huge reason why it works.  Yes, a lot of the humor is juvenile and hit-and-miss.  (I cringed whenever the film’s nominal villain, a douche voiced by Nick Kroll, showed up.)  But for every joke that misses, there’s a joke that works perfectly.  Interestingly, for all the silliness that’s inherent in the idea of making a film about talking grocery items, there’s a strain a very real melancholy running through Sausage Party.  Sausage Party may be a dumb comedy but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a lot on its mind.

Since it’s a Seth Rogen film, the cast is full of familiar voices.  Yes, James Franco can be heard.  So can Paul Rudd, Danny McBride, Salma Hayek, Edward Norton, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson.  They all sound great, bringing vibrant life to the film’s collection of consumables and condiments.

Sausage Party.  After watching it, it’s possible you’ll never eat another hot dog.